Asian Immigrant Father Knows Best

I think I’ve discovered a new genre of opinion writing.  Consider these two commentaries from recent months:

My Asian Dad and Mitt Romney’s Muffin Tops

Why My Immigrant Christian Conservative Dad Supports Same-Sex Marriage

The New York Times ran the top opinion last fall.  Recall my glorious skewering of it here.  The second is an April post by a blogger at The Wall Street Journal.  Both pieces–written by different authors–are the product of a culturally liberal, big city-dwelling Asian-American, who makes a career out of writing.  Each author offers an anecdotal account–real or imagined–of how his or her own curmudgeonly, conservative, immigrant father comes to take a liberal position on a major national controversy.  Their stories are each a perverse appeal to patriarch.  But unlike the 1950s TV show Father Knows Best, the correctness of dad’s authority is completely contingent on his child’s judgment.

The iconic TV show Father Knows Best aired from 1954-1960. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the son of an Asian immigrant myself, I’m intrigued by these opinion pieces.  They cleverly exploit the prevalent “model minority” stereotype to hook readers in.  Our imaginations find traction in the conflict between the up-by-the-bootstraps, old-world sensibilities of dad, and the live-and-let-live mores of the progressive, urban kid.

This drama isn’t unique to Asian-American immigrant families.  It has largely defined the immigrant story since the ascendance of American counterculture five decades ago.  The parents sacrifice greatly to come to America, thankful for the opportunity to work hard and build something.  But then their children succumb to the dominant values of the native culture: instant gratification, moral autonomy, and entitlement.  The American Dream shipwrecks on the subsequent generations’ inability to steward the precious treasure given to them.

Common opinion is that conservatives strongly oppose immigration.  But nothing could do America better than to keep hardworking immigrants coming in.  We need their work ethic and traditional values to turn the tide against the flaming wreck that is American culture today.

Don’t Push the Green Button

Having seen Iron Man 2, and then engaged in some thought and discussion about super heroes, I have come to conclude that the current crop of comic book heroes are the wrong ones for our society.  Last time I mentioned the naivete of the Superman and Spiderman protagonists, and I will say the same rules extend to Iron Man.  In a major way, the former characters are quite different from Tony Stark.  While the three suited-up men are always humbled by the formidability of their respective foes, the unsuited Tony Stark is not as bumbling as Peter Parker or Clark Kent.  But underlying Stark’s rock star persona is an earnest search for meaning and a desire to single-handedly bring world peace.  While these are nice sentiments becoming the likes of Madonna or Bono, the hero’s god-like abilities and achievements put him in a plane that does not intersect the viewer’s reality.

The most prominent offense of most super heroes is their ability to dodge the issues we must face in real life.  Early in Iron Man 2, the viewer discovers Stark is slowly being poisoned.  Without revealing too much of an utterly gripping plot, its safe to say that through a combination of deus ex machina and good old gumption, Stark is able to invent his way out of death–apparently overnight.  You might pause and ask if it is contradictory to shoot down Stark’s grit and determination as undesirable since I have previously defended the “bootstraps” idea of success in America.  The difference is that in reality, hard work is hard.

On the silver screen and in comic book pages, mythical heroes can magically make super devices and single-handedly resolve eternal dilemmas overnight.  But satisfying narratives need profound sacrifice–whether it is blood, sweat, or forbearance.  That is why the Gospel is so naturally compelling: God as Christ submitted to reality as we experience it, facing humiliation and death to bring a ringing victory over sin.  Many exemplary stories shine because of their portrayal of sacrifice, but for most comic book heroes sacrifice is either superficial or arbitrary.

The heroes that defy this trend tend not to be so singular or over the top.  The X-Men franchise is pretty solid, but the best may be Batman.  In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne and his fellow players must come to terms with a gritty world populated by jaded citizens and fallible heroes, a world that offers only heartbreak and insurmountable moral dilemmas.  While Batman is a rich, technological whiz like Tony Stark, he is not in danger of teaching the moral that pushing a green button will magically make life better.  Neither does Batman feed the idea that there are certain exceptional individuals we should look to solve our problems.  Rather, The Dark Knight emphasizes the democratization of morality and virtue, which is clearly born out in the climactic ferry boat stand off.

We may look to comic book blockbusters as just a little vacuous, harmless entertainment, but we should not be lulled into an unconscious acceptance of their implicit worldview.  Not all comic book movies were created equal, and I am not talking in terms of computer graphics and explosions.  It matters just how one goes about saving the world.

Bootstraps versus Knapsacks

The California state budget fiasco has afforded me some free time recently, so I’ve been doing some spring cleaning.  Among the relics I unearthed from recent months were the collected handouts for a class  on race taught at my church last year.  It was a sad reminder that leftist agitprop had infiltrated the Sunday classroom.  I mean no disrespect for those who earnestly pursue God’s will in matters of race and justice.  Yet,  the ideas propagated in those papers and discussions contribute to an unhealthy, counterproductive worldview.

One particularly troubling area of the race curriculum is its prescribed journey from bootstraps to knapsacks.  Since I first encountered these two concepts in the same context, they have always seemed at odds.  Bootstraps and knapsacks are mutually exclusive; people tend to love one and hate the other.  In one corner is the classic “up by the bootstraps” idea that hard work begets success in America.  As an alternative, progressives offer the red pill notion that any comfort, success, and prosperity are owed instead to an “invisible knapsack of privilege.”  No, you can’t make this stuff up.  The  idea originated in the 1980s with feminist Peggy McIntosh.  Now if you take success and prosperity to be synonymous with  being white, you have the original gist of the knapsack.

McIntosh’s personal revelations notwithstanding, I find the knapsack lacks effective explanatory power from where I stand as a mixed race, conservative man in a tremendously free and prosperous society.  I find it more relevant to look at success in America as a general whole rather than assume that success is the exclusive reserve of some monolithic group called  “whites.”  Yet knapsack proponents are eager to showcase McIntosh’s writing as a contrast to bootstraps in the hope of inducing an aha! moment that race is integrally relevant to American success.  Any serious-minded person who encounters these two tangling visions must decide which one will ultimately color (no pun intended) their own life at the everyday level.

In their existential tendencies, knapsack and bootstraps could not be more divergent.  In spite of its good intentions, knapsack supplants bootstraps’ twin senses of gratitude and agency with a new malaise of victimhood and guilt.  In doing away with bootstraps, knapsack denies us the ability to thank our parents, ancestors, and even our Creator for their respective roles in contributing to our current comfort and success.  From its secular Leftist roots, knapsack can only give us an impersonal, monolithic explanation that oppression is the true father of our prosperity.  Its as depressing as when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth Vader is his dad. Progressive Christians mean well when they attempt to carve a path for American repentance, but they damage worldviews when they uphold knapsack and dismiss bootstraps.  American history is marked more by opportunity than by oppression.  But supposing the facts to be in dispute, such an assertion would be better defended in a separate post.  Existentially, bootstraps thinking cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” that in turn nurtures desire for stewardship. This then necessitates individual accountability, and all three of these are integral to Christian living.  Knapsack, however, turns us to navel-gazing and perpetually renewed  calls for dialog that might make good sound bites but do little to effect meaningful change.  Instead of attending ponderous powwows that reinforce progressive dogmas, Christians sincerely pursuing what is right and good should look critically at knapsack thinking and reclaim as their own the virtues of the bootstraps ethic.

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